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anchovies & olives

The fourth and most recent entry into celebrated restaurateur Ethan Stowell’s growing empire is also the one I have been most eagerly anticipating.  I am a huge fan of Tavolàta and How to Cook a Wolf, and now Mr. Food and Wine Best New Chef 2008 was poised to open a seafood joint in my very own hood?  Was this at long last going to be the answer to my prayers for an innovative fish dish?  Would there be any reason to ever again leave Capitol Hill??

Hyperbole aside, the truth is that Anchovies & Olives is pretty great, but it’s not the end-all-be-all dining experience I was hoping for.  The industrial, mid-sized space still has that new restaurant smell, with lots of concrete and spare walls and deliberately exposed filaments.  Soft globes of light line the ceiling from one end of the room to the other.  It’s a little sterile, but if you happen to catch a breathtaking Summer sunset over the downtown skyline through giant plate glass windows while sipping a glass of prosecco, you’re not going to notice the lack of fixtures.  If you’re particularly lucky, Stowell himself will be at the helm of the most audacious open kitchen in town – seriously, you can see everything everyone is cooking or prepping or plating at all times (the polar opposite of Wolf).  Otherwise, chef de cuisine Charles Walpole will be at the helm, executing Stowell’s vision with steady hand and shaved head.

The most immediately remarkable thing about A&O is that it boldly rejects the locavore trend currently dominating the Northwest scene.  None of the fish is locally sourced.  There are no lengthy paeans to this organic ingredient or that sustainable farm.  It’s almost an affront to open a seafood restaurant in Seattle without a single instance of salmon to be found anywhere on the menu.  Stowell is throwing the gauntlet, and there’s a brazen defiance to his approach which flies in the face of the sanctimonious tilth crowd (indeed, our server even boasted “Fish from the East Coast just tastes better”). 

But does it really?

If we’re talking about the crudos, then the answer is a resounding Yes (although it’s admittedly futile to try and separate the food from the chef).  Stowell’s raw dishes at A&O handily steal the show.  A plate of Hamachi in a basil reduction sauce with rhubarb and pea vines is painted with eye-popping pinks and greens and has a gentle, grassy flavor.  Soft and pale Fluke, a usually very mild fish, is elevated by gems of cubed grapefruit and brilliant mint.  Some ideas work better than others.  For example, on a recent visit, a piece of Yellowfin Tuna was regrettably drowned in an overly sweet strawberry sauce with crushed black pepper (a misstep to be sure, but I sort of appreciate the risk).

anchovies & olives inside

The actual main entrées also succeed to varying degrees.  I found a hot filet of grilled Spanish Mackerel served over blanched fingerling potatoes with capers and a “salsa verde” to be smoky and flaky and a little bit dull.  It was completely upstaged by a piece of Striped Bass with fennel leafs, beets and tiny, salty sea beans.  The Bass was meatier, tastier and juicier than the Mackerel, and the vibrant green sea beans gave a wonderfully briny flavor to the dish.  I was initially excited to try some Soft Shell Crab, but the overly chewy texture and intense saltiness was fairly off-putting (and it didn’t help that the accompanying Swiss chard was bitter and tough).

On the other hand, it’s no surprise that Anchovies & Olives fairs much better in the pasta department.  I was thrilled to see that my beloved anchovy, garlic and chilies dish was on the menu (most recently served over thick Bigoli noodles).  There’s Octopus Gnocchi and Salt Cod Puttanesca and Squid Pappardelle.  But even better than all of the above (and an early contender for my favorite dish of 2009), is the Tagliarini with Uni, pangrattato and chives.  It’s a completely original dish, unlike anything I’ve eaten, and wonderful in every conceivable way.  The sea urchin is blended with butter to create a rich orange sauce which clings neatly to the tender, flat ribbons of pasta.  The pile of shaved breadcrumbs gives additional texture to the sweet, bright, oceanic flavor.  Each bite is an epiphany.

In keeping with the custom of Stowell’s other places, there are no reservations available at Anchovies and Olives.  You’ve just got to show up and hope for the best.  There is however, a more casual, almost loose vibe here which clearly sets this restaurant apart from the others.  I mean, they were playing Bob freakin’ Marley in there the other night.  No kidding.  -10 hipster points.  Although, to be fair, A&O is hardly playing to the usual Capitol Hill crowd (especially with prices ranging from $14-18 a plate).  Regardless of musical proclivities and some inconsistencies in the food, I’m happy to finally have Stowell in the hood, and will no doubt make this a destination when the inevitable request is made by visitors for “Northwest seafood!™”

Won’t they be surprised.

Anchovies & Olives on Urbanspoon

tavolata

So remember how I mentioned in my last post that the James Beard Foundation is inviting everyone to nominate their favorite chefs for the award this year?  Well, I’d probably put safe money on Ethan Stowell taking home the prize.  A nominee last year, and named one of the Best New Chefs in 2008 by Food & Wine magazine, Stowell is rapidly building a restaurant dynasty in Seattle à la Tom Douglas.  Along with his business partner Patric Gabre-Kidan, Stowell’s empire now extends from the metropolitan Downtown destination Union, north to Belltown with his superlative Italian restaurant Tavolàta, up to the top of the Queen Anne Counterbalance with the intimate How to Cook a Wolf, and now over to Capitol Hill with the recently announced Anchovies and Olives (set to open early next year).  All of the menus feature constantly rotating seasonal offerings, with some greatest hits and variations depending on the venue.

Of all of Stowell’s establishments, my very favorite is Tavolàta at 2nd and Battery, and a recent visit only cemented this notion.  I arrived late with a large party after an evening of drinking, which is the best time to visit this cavernous, industrial expanse in the heart of Belltown.  The energy is astonishing.  The bar is packed.  The wait is ridiculous.  But it is so worth it.  Put in your name, have a breathtaking glass of Sangiovese from Moris Farms and enjoy the endless stream of beautiful people.  The central space is dominated by a massive 30 foot communal dining table next to the open kitchen.  A handful of small tables and one-on-one booths line the walls, and upstairs some comfy lounge chairs and sofas are arranged near the windows with a scenic view of the crackheads in the alley (Welcome to Belltown!).

Stowell’s dishes are deceptive in their simplicity.  Ingredients are used sparingly and in harmony to create a perfect gestalt where the final product always equals the sum of its parts.  Try some antipasti — the Prosciutto di Parma with reggiano and trampetti olive oil is not overly salty and will simply melt in your mouth.  The Garden Greens salad is one of the best in the City, with fresh and leafy baby lettuce, ricotta salata and pistachios.  On this occasion, I swooned over a lemony cauliflower salad with golden raisins and pine nuts.  The florets were warm and crisp, and the raisins were a revelation of sweetness.

But the real star of the show is the handmade pasta.  The pasta dishes run the gamut, and it’s always fun to try something new and serve family style.  I nearly always order the Spaghetti since I can’t even begin to approximate the perfection of this humble noodle in my own kitchen the same way it shines here.  Tender and firm and perfect, with house cured anchovy, chili and garlic – a veritable bitchslap of flavor, instant sobriety in a bowl.  The Strozzapreti with braised pork cheek and mascarpone will give you further strength for the bus ride home – the juicy, rich meat and large rolled noodles are substantial and will definitely require sharing (fun fact: strozzapreti means “priest strangler”).  Linguine with mussels and garlic is another fan favorite, served in a bowl retaining the starchy, briny broth the shellfish and noodles were cooked in.

On this occasion, the hands-down winner was a seasonal offering, the toasted orechiette with butternut squash, chanterelles and oregano.  The tiny ears of pasta captured the squash and mushrooms perfectly, and the oregano was easily the finest, most flavorful herb I’ve tasted in ages.  I have no idea where Stowell scored such outrageously good seasoning, but for me, the oregano alone stole the show that night.

Go now and prepare for a wait.  Because that’s nothing compared to the time it will take to get into Tavolàta if Stowell does win James Beard this year…

BONUS REVIEW!  Earlier this Spring, I was invited by Seattle’s favorite alt-weekly The Stranger to guest blog with a couple of other regular commenters over at the Slog.  It was shortly after How to Cook a Wolf opened, and I was totally infatuated with Stowell’s newest space.  I felt compelled to write a review at the time, and so here it is for your enjoyment.  That experience obviously had a profound effect on me, and successfully planted the seed for what you are reading today, so a big thanks to America’s Hometown Newspaper!

Tavolata on Urbanspoon

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